Book Review: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

By Guy Delisle

With the death of Kim Jong-Il last month interest in North Korea has experienced a recent hype. It was off the back of this hype that I got round to reading this wonderful book which my good lady had been trying to persuade me that I should be reading for ages. If I'd known how much I was going to enjoy it I would have acquiesced sooner. Guy Delisle is a wry 37-year-old French Canadian cartoonist whose work for a French animation studio requires him to oversee production at various Pacific Rim studios on the grim frontiers of free trade. His employer puts him up for months at a time in "cold and soulless" hotel rooms where he suffers the usual maladies of the long-term boarder: cultural and linguistic alienation, boredom, and cravings for Western food and real coffee. Delisle depicts these sojourns into the heart of isolation in brilliant "graphic novels" (essentially big, square-bound comic books).

Price: £12:99
Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 978-0224079907
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Pyongyang is Delisle's contemplation on the isolation of authoritarian North Korea from his perspetive during a 2 month working visit. The animation studios Delisle deals with in North Korea are located in the capital city, their insularity enforced by government minders. Kim Jong Il's cult of personality is pervasive, though Delisle can't tell whether the North Koreans really believe the government propaganda they spout. Delisle is not Louis Theroux: The furthest he tests totalitarian oppression in Pyongyang is by tossing paper airplanes out his hotel room window and trying to corrupt his uptight translator with decadent capitalist values.

At all times Delisle had to be accompanied by his guide and translator. He was not free to go where he wanted, the little he got to see was the grandiose, but soulless sights built in the honour of North Korea's Great Leader: Eternal President, Marshal Kim Il-Sung. The pictures of Kim Il-Sung and his son, Dear Leader General Kim Jong-Il hang in all rooms except the lavatories. They are also found on the chests of all North-Koreans in the form of pins. On one occasion, Delisle lends one of his guides a copy of Orwell's 1984, which somehow was not confiscated by customs. The guide returns it to him a few days' later, visibly flustered. What did he think? Delisle never succeeds in finding out, the guide only says 'I don't like Science Fiction'. Delisle is, however, not contemptuous of the North Koreans he meets, and many of his reflections are spent trying to comprehend what exactly makes them tick. When Delisle observes that there doesn't appear to be any disabled people around, his guide informs him the reason for that is because North Koreans are all born strong and healthy. Hence there are no cripples or anyone even on crutches.
Something that struck me profoundly, however, was the way it seems the entire civilian population of Pyongyang appeared to be one big denouncement network. After asking to see Pyongyang's railway station and being told it was not possible, curiosity got the better of Delisle and one weekend he leaves the hotel alone, without a guide and walks to the railway station -only to find it to be a regular railway station. The next day his translator arrives to meet him and says 'so you went to the station'.

The unauthorised visit to the station is about the boldest thing the author does, there are no run-ins with authorities or near-death mishaps. Delisle arrives, he works on his projects, and he returns home. What makes his experiences worth reading, however, is precisely the fact that they're so ordinary: Were you to follow in his footsteps, this weirdness could, and would, happen to you. Delisle's argument with a fellow animator over which of their hotel's identical dining rooms is superior -Restaurant No. 1 or Restaurant No. 2 reveals all one needs to know about the Stalinist mentality of Kim's regime.

In terms of whether or not you feel a graphic novel is for you, speaking for myself I found in 'Pyongyang' that a competent cartoonist is capable of conveying the 'feel' of North Korea more than is possible via other forms of media. Delisle's gentle humour, when paired with such deceptively simple and expressive artwork, works extremely well, resulting in a thought-provoking and remarkable account.